A dismal treatment of a minor but interesting figure in 17th-century English literature. Mrs. Behn (d. 1689) is notable for...

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RECONSTRUCTING APHRA: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn

A dismal treatment of a minor but interesting figure in 17th-century English literature. Mrs. Behn (d. 1689) is notable for her anti-slavery novel Oroonoko and for being the first woman playwright on the English stage. She was a prolific but, on the whole, mediocre writer, and the details of her life are largely obscure. Goreau tries to get around this obstacle by talking about historical events that would have affected anyone in her lifetime--the Civil War, the Restoration, the Great Plague, the Fire of London, the Popish Plot, etc.--and about the deplorable condition of women in the late 1600s. Concerning Aphra herself, Goreau has little to work with except some skimpy public records, some occasional verse written about her (often obscene or vicious or both), her correspondence, and her voluminous but unrevealing oeuvre. Much of this material is quite boring, and Goreau doesn't help things by her ineptitude as a literary critic. She contrasts Behn's stream of publications with the meager output of her young friend Thomas Otway, apparently unaware that Otway produced at least one unquestionable masterpiece, Venice Preserv'd. Goreau comments at length on Behn's poem ""the Golden Age,"" praising its supposedly radical critique of the injustice and oppression of civilization, when the piece is in fact a tissue of commonplaces as old as Ovid. Behn was in her own way a feminist and hence unhappy with the status quo, and Oroonoko's positive views of blacks make it a real landmark. But to associate Behn, as Goreau does, with a full-blown social revolutionary such as Gerrard Winstanley is simply wrong: she was--and remained--a conventional thinker and, as Goreau admits, a thorough Tory. There may be a moving story or an important message buried in Aphra Behn's biography (apart from the obvious one that the first women writers had a terrible time of it), but if so, Goreau has failed to find it.

Pub Date: July 31, 1980

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1980